Finding Your Niche Fragrances

Niche Fragrances - Penhaligon's Much Ado About The Duke

The fragrance market ain’t what it used to be and niche fragrances are on the rise. The steady decline of the celebrity fragrance category is gathering pace. Designer fragrances that used to fly off the shelves are increasingly being discounted.

The numbers below speak for themselves. These figures are for the world’s largest fragrance market, the USA. But these are international trends, according to industry analysts NPD Group, The Business of Fashion and Perfumer & Flavorist. Amid all the number-crunching, there’s a discernible shift to niche fragrances. They have added almost $250 million to the fragrance market since 2014.

66%  the decline of the celebrity fragrance market in department stores from 2011-2014

6% – the drop in overall fragrance sales from 2015 to 2016

 1%  – the sales growth of prestige fragrances

The rise of niche fragrances - Boss Bottled Tonic

RETAIL BLUES: Designer fragrances aren’t the guaranteed hits they used to be.

Even South Africa, a land of mass market and designer fragrances, is not immune to these changes. Hence the recent arrival of Skins Cosmetics, the renowned Dutch niche beauty and fragrances retailer, in Johannesburg (www.skins.co.za). Skins Cosmetics strikes a good balance between big-name niche fragrances and more experimental niche fragrances. You’ll find everything from Aqua di Parma, Creed, Diptyque, Floris, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s to Aether, Escentric Molecules and Le Labo at this upmarket store.

While it’s pointless to get bogged down in definitions, it’s always good to know what we mean when we use a buzz-phrase like “niche fragrances”. And why exactly are niche fragrances showing such growth. I asked two of my favourite bloggers for their thoughts on the above and this is what they had to say.

DEFINING THE VALUE OF NICHE FRAGRANCES

“If I were being really ‘black and white’ about this, the only honest, accurate answer is ‘nothing’. ‘Niche’, as a descriptor, does not signify any particular style or aesthetic. If the term has any value, it is only as a method of describing limited and/or independent production/ distribution. I would concede that the best so-called niche perfumes possess a clear reflection of the visions of their creators.” – Dariush Alavi of Persolaise (http://persolaise.blogspot.co.za)

Niche Fragrances - L'Artisan Parfumeur Au Bord de L'Eau

THE ARTISTRY OF NICHE FRAGRANCES: L’Artisan Parfumeur Au Bord de L’Eau, inspired by Claude Monet.

“Niche perfumery is a very creative arm of the industry. Most of the trends that have become prolific in commercial perfumery started in niche. It’s an important place for generating and testing new ideas. Niche is a good incubator for creativity. Its audiences are genuinely interested in unusual or forward-thinking fragrances. They don’t want to smell like every second person on the street.” – Clayton Ilolahia of What Men Should Smell Like (http://whatmenshouldsmelllike.com)

BEWARE! THE SNOBBERY OF NICHE FRAGRANCES

These insights from Clayton and Dariush pretty much sum up the role and nuances of niche fragrances. I would also like to add that we need to beware the snobbery of niche fragrances. Just because it’s a designer/mainstream/commercial fragrance doesn’t mean it’s inherently crap. I have come across a fair amount of that snootiness online. Equally, just because it’s a niche fragrance doesn’t mean it’s better quality or more deserving of the cash you’re about to splash.

Niche Fragrances - David Liss Fabulous Men

DAVID WHO?: The joy of new fragrance discoveries.

For me, perfumery should always be about the joy of discovery. The joy of discovering the classics of perfumery. The joy of discovering new variations on seemingly exhausted themes. And also the joy of discovering cheap and cheerful bargains. Ultimately, niche fragrances should increase our options, expand our knowledge and pleasure. So yes, be a discerning and savvy consumer, but snobbery is so self-limiting.

“Perfumery should always be about the joy of discovery. So yes, be a discerning and savvy consumer, but snobbery is so self-limiting.”

Niche Fragrances - Budget Buys Have Their Place Too

BARGAIN SHELF: Budget buys have their place too.

Clayton offers very useful advice to those who are just starting their discovery of niche fragrances: “Buy from a retailer who specialises in niche fragrances and let them help guide you in the beginning. With experience, most people will see common threads, maybe an ingredient or note they like, or a perfumer whose work they like, which begins to influence their buying.”

Niche Fragrances - Nasomatto fragrances at Skins Cosmetics

GOING DUTCH: Let Skins Cosmetics introduce you to Nasomatto fragrances.

Fragrance is such a personal and mood-influenced choice, so I hope niche fragrances bring you much joy. These are are some of my favourite niche fragrances:

Penhaligon’s Much Ado About The Duke EDP (2016)

British heritage brand Penhaligon’s has been in the fragrance biz since the 1870s and is one of the most celebrated companies in niche fragrances. From its recent Portraits collection, Much Ado About The Duke is an unapologetically sparkling rose, with notes of pepper, leather, wood, gin and tonic adding to its irreverent appeal. It was created by Daphne Bugey, the nose behind Jean Paul Gaultier Scandal, Le Labo Bergamote 22, Mugler Aura and Valentino Valentina Pink.

Niche Fragrances - Penhaligon's Much Ado About The Duke

Etat Libre d’Orange Like This EDP (2010)

While the company founded by South Africa-born Etienne de Swardt is sometimes better known for its shock-and-awe tactics, it also produces top-notch niche fragrances. You can read my interview with Etienne de Swardt here (http://fragroom.com/2017/04/20/etat-libre-doranges-etienne-de-swardt/). This collaboration with Tilda Swinton captures the English actress’s idea of home, with cosy and comforting notes of ginger, immortelle, pumpkin, tangerine, vetiver and heliotrope. Created by Mathilde Bijaoui, it won the Fragrance Foundation France Award for Best Niche Fragrance in 2011.

Niche Fragrances - Etat Libre d'Orange Like this

L’Artisan Parfumeur Tea For Two EDT (2000)

One of the best tea fragrances around. It conjures up spicy-aromatic intimacy with notes of tea, tobacco, cinnamon, honey, ginger, star anise, gingerbread and vanilla. This treat from L’Artisan Parfumeur, one of the pioneers of niche fragrances since the 1970s, was created by Olivia Giacobetti. This nose also created Diptyque Philosykos, Frédéric Malle en Passant, Hermès Hiris and several other L’Artisan Parfumeur beauties. This is a vintage bottle below. So if you’re looking for Tea For Tea, it’s to be found in the company’s newish grey bottles.

Atelier Cologne Vetiver Fatal (2012)

Founded in 2009, this Paris-based company has made its mark in the niche fragrances industry with its cologne absolues. These cologne absolues combine the traditional citrus character of eau de colognes with longer-lasting natural materials. I am a big fan of vetiver fragrances and Atelier Cologne Vetiver Fatal is a gentler interpretation of the usually earthy theme. It features notes of Calabrian bergamot, Sicilian lemon, Tunisian orange blossom absolue, fig, Grasse violet leaves and Texan cedarwood. A super-fresh summer in a bottle!

Niche Fragrances - Atelier Cologne Vetiver Fatal

 

Etat Libre d’Orange’s Etienne de Swardt (Mostly) Unfiltered

Since its launch in 2006, Etat Libre d’Orange has gained notoriety and a large international cult following with its provocative perfumes and tongue-in-cheek humour. With perfumes such as Putain des Palaces, Attaqeur le Soleil Marquis de Sade, Fat Electrician and Encens et Bubblegum, Etat Libre d’Orange has walked a fine line between shock value and scentsory awe.

ROYAL WHORE: Putain des Palaces.

The man behind this Paris-based niche perfumery, Etienne de Swardt, was born and raised in South Africa. The name “Etat Libre d’Orange” is a witty word play on the Orange Free State, the South African province where De Swardt lived during his formative years.

After working for big fragrance names like Givenchy and weary of the conventions and limitations of perfumery, De Swardt launched Oh My Dog! and Oh My Cat!, his fragrance range for pets, which humans could wear too. Cheeky bugger!

My first encounter (“experience” is too tame a word) with Etat Libre d’Orange was with Je Suis un Homme, launched in 2006. Although that bottle was emptied many years ago, I still remember it as a heady collision between citrus, spice, leather and cognac notes. Not the usual, for sure.

I wangled my South African background to get an email interview with De Swardt. For a change, I had to turn off my overly vigilant inner editor to retain the drama and flow of his manifesto-like answers. So mostly I have shortened and explained his answers where necessary for clarity.

BOTTLED MISCHIEF: The Etat Libre d’Orange collection.

After more than 10 years in the industry, has Etat Libre d’Orange achieved what you set out to do? The objective is still too confused to measure a pertinent achievement. Sabotage will be the final destination, with all our narcissism, scented exactions, calculated pathos and endorsements of rogue heroes and heroines blended on one magnificent fire. I would love a purifying fire at 69 Rue des Archives [the address of the Etat Libre d’Orange store in Paris] to consume a decade “à tout faire de travers [doing it our way]”.

You started out as an agent provocateur in the industry. Is that still your motivation? I was born a sophisticated Shakespearean impostor, lost in between South Africa and New Caledonia. I was shaped by womanity, materfamilias, gay but elusive multiple (step) fathers, literature, cloud soaring, instants in the wind and, of course, my own departed. Hence, I am fucking confused and disturbed. But thankfully I have all the codes of vanity, arrogance and narcissism, knowing all that will be gone with the wind, revenged by our finitude and hazardous biology, so I bow to Diogenes’s cynicism.

EXISTENTIAL AESTHETICS: You or Someone Like You.

Using your latest fragrance, You or Someone Like You, as an example, briefly talk us through your conceptualisation and creative process. Just a good name to ignite the process and federate the passions, and a good extra bonus of existentialism with my knowledgeable Chandler Burr [the acclaimed American author, journalist and perfume expert] on board. Chandler is a crusader of aesthetics on the road less travelled. Alive and kicking this is what we are, knowing the end is a Greek tragedy. In the meantime, let’s be dramatic, frivolous and genuine.

With its notes of blood, adrenaline, sperm and saliva, Secretions Magnifiques created a huge sensation when it was launched in 2006 and still upsets or delights people. Looking back now, what do you think of it? My beloved virus, my favourite crime scene, why did you betray me, trapping for so long our land of plenty in a swamp of miasma, saliva, sperm and other encoded fluids of duplication and reproduction. I was born in 1970, the year of the dog, and I sniff around not like a perfumer, but like a hound, hunting high and low body intimacies.

SCENTED FREAK: Fat Electrician.

What’s your favourite Etat Libre d’Orange fragrance? I love all my scented freaks equally. They all speak my very universal disorders. Etat Libre d’Orange is a land of plenty, inclusive of all neurotic but charming darkness. It’s where a Fat Electrician shall dance an eternal farandole with a powdery slut, a leathery Tom of Finland, an abject ylang-ylang Charogne, the synaesthesia of a Nijinsky dancing the faun in 1912 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the eternal feminine killer’s kiss blending jasmine at twilight with a seductive cigarette, a naive Justine lost in between vice and virtue, but deliciously perverted by a Luciferian Marquis of Sade. They are all for You or Someone Like You.

Has your definition of success changed since you launched Etat Libre d’Orange? Penitence is my lot in life, stoicism and cynicism my brothers in arms. I hope that all these existentialism-scented manoeuvres since 2006 will help me to buy a Jonker JS-1 Revelation sailplane, designed in Potchefstroom, South Africa, by two talented brothers. Soaring is a place where everything starts and ends, driven by humility.

SOARING IS EVERYTHING: De Swardt’s dream Jonker JS-1 sailplane.

What fragrance are you working on now? Vos Beaux Yeux Vont Pleurer, inspired by the poetry of Ray Bradbury and David Bowie (Martian Chronicles + Serious Moonlight), the curse of beauty of Rock Hudson, Edna “E” Mode [from The Incredibles], Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug and WD-40 Multi-Use products to keep our souls away from rusted parts. Disturbed, isn’t it?

What are your thoughts on the current state of the perfume industry? Mutation and survival of the fittest.

Are your fragrances distributed in South Africa? No, we are too “incompris” [misunderstood].

BODY INTIMACIES: Secretions Magnifiques.

Apart from its name, does South Africa inspire your fragrances at all? Etat Libre d’Orange is the best blend of 21st-century Voortrekker spirit and existentialism à la française. Tell the Ruperts [the wealthy South African family who founded Richemont] that I don’t want to sell my house to LVMH or L’Oréal. But I would be happy one day to dance the carmagnole in the Great Karoo around the camp fire with protective laager people, my family, Walt Whitman or Alan Paton – the same universal, drifting, contemplative saga of pain and beauty on the limitless borders of New Caledonia, Colorado or Kroonstad. I am the true son of a Free State farm boy with vast memories of Bothaville and meat pie…

Want to read another intriguing interview with one of the masters of modern niche perfumery? Check out my interview with Bertrand Duchaufour here.